I arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos on Monday afternoon and saw my first traffic light since arriving in Laos. It’s a shock to see so many cars after being in motorbike territory for so long. Vientiane is pretty sleepy as far as national capitals go, and everyone describes it as “like a big village.” The city sits on the northern bank of the Mekong river, with Thailand on the other side. On the Vientiane side, there is a huge sandbar in the riverbed, and it took me about 20 minutes to walk across it to the river, which is quite narrow. I don’t know if this is because Laos is well into the dry season, or if it is always this way. In the muddy part of the sandbar, there were millions of tiny toads hopping about and I stepped carefully, afraid I'd squash one by accident.
The architecture seems to have two dominant provenances: graceful, aging French colonial buildings and not so attractive cement blocks dating from the period of massive inflows of US aid in the 1950s. There are also many gorgeous, ornate, golden temples, some of them quite old. There seems to be a government ministry, foreign embassy or international organization every inch, as well as many restaurants catering to the tastes of expatriate employees. It reminds me of Managua in this respect, especially the many SUVs driven by the embassy/NGO/international aid expatriate set. In all fairness, I’ve no doubt the roads are pretty awful in most parts of the country.
It’s also more of a working, Lao city than Luang Prabang. There are street vendors catering to Lao customers, not just foreigners, and street kids make the rounds begging at cafes. Novice monks in bright orange robes, often carrying black umbrellas to shield their bald heads from the sun, and women carrying bundles balanced on each end of a bamboo stick contrast with men dressed in suits. In all parts of Laos, women wear the sihn, a long dark colored skirt with a design woven on the bottom, however in Vientiane, the more sophisticated ladies wear sihn made of elegant, shimmery fabric. They’re quite beautiful, and I even saw a Western woman wearing a shorter version of this kind of sihn. I was tempted to run to the tailors and order one like it, but my backpack is already too full.
I’ve had the strange experience of meeting two Lao men, on two separate occasions, who spoke to me in English with a strong Southern drawl. Both have lived in the US for many years and are visiting Laos on vacation, and both were accompanied by lovely Lao women who spoke no English. I had the surreal experience of helping one of them use the ATM. He had a debit card from an American bank, and wanted to withdraw dollars, but I had to tell him that the machine only gave currency in kip, and that he’d have to go into a bank to request a cash advance if he wanted dollars.
I was supposed to fly home from Bangkok on Monday. It will come as no surprise that as usual, I’ve changed the date of my ticket. I have probably paid enough money in ticket change penalties over my lifetime to fly around the world and back. I have promised myself that from now on I will try to buy open tickets if possible, since as usual, the change fee was much higher than I had been told originally. I am drafting a nasty letter to Expedia.com to complain about this. So, why have I changed my ticket this time? The simple answer is that I’m not ready to come home and Vietnam is so close. Originally, I had wanted to go to Hanoi and Halong Bay, but had decided not to overstretch myself. But in Laos, I kept meeting people who really enjoyed Vietnam, and it is so close. When I looked into flights and visas, it seemed so easy to just buy a guidebook, book a flight, apply for a visa and be on my way.
So, I’m waiting for my visa for Vietnam to be processed right now, and will fly to Hanoi on Friday January 18th. I’ll spend a few days in Hanoi and from there I’ll go to Halong Bay, and then start to work my way south overland toward Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the Mekong Delta, stopping in Ninh Binh, Hue, Hoi An, and maybe a beach like Quy Nhon or Nha Trang or Mui Ne, and maybe also Dalat. The grand plan is then to head to Cambodia, and from there fly back to Bali before heading home in early March. But the beauty of traveling alone is that everything is infinitely flexible, so this may change as I go, depending on how I feel. I’d love any tips or advice for Vietnam from anyone who has spent time there.